Environmental Issues > Wildlands Main Page > All Wildlands Documents

Arctic Refuge Land Grab
See what drilling will do
Map: see what drilling will do

Explore the Arctic
See our slide show
See our slide show

On the northern edge of our continent, stretching from the peaks of the Brooks Range across a vast expanse of tundra to the Beaufort Sea, lies Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. An American Serengeti, the Arctic Refuge continues to pulse with million-year-old ecological rhythms. It is the greatest living reminder that conserving nature in its wild state is a core American value.

In affirmation of that value, Congress and the American people have consistently made clear their desire to protect this treasure and rejected claims that drilling for oil in the Arctic Refuge is any sort of answer to the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Twice in 2005, Congress acted explicitly to defend the refuge from the Bush administration and pro-drilling forces, with House leaders removing provisions that would have allowed for drilling from a massive budget bill, and the Senate withstanding an attempt by Republican leaders to open up the Arctic.

Since then, concerned Americans have continued to push Congress to thwart recurring efforts to see the refuge spoiled. During President Obama's 2008 campaign he pledged not to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas leasing. Over the last year the Fish and Wildlife Service has been developing a new management plan for the Refuge and is considering recommending Wilderness for the coastal plain.

Americans Have Steadily Opposed Drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The controversy over drilling in the Arctic Refuge -- the last piece of America's Arctic coastline not already open to oil exploration -- isn't new. Big Oil has long sought access to the refuge's coastal plain, a fragile swath of tundra that teems with staggering numbers of birds and animals. During the Bush administration's first term, repeated attempts were made to open the refuge. But time after time, the American public rejected the idea.

Congress has received hundreds of thousands of emails, faxes and phone calls from citizens opposed to drilling in the Arctic Refuge, an outpouring that has helped make the difference. And polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans oppose drilling, even in the face of high gas prices and misleading claims from oil interests. A June 2008 poll by the research firm Belden Russonello & Stewart found that 55 percent of the American public supports continued protection for the Arctic Refuge, and only 35 percent of Americans believe that allowing oil companies to drill in the refuge would result in lower gas prices for American consumers.

Despite repeated failure and stiff opposition, drilling proponents press on. Why? They believe that opening the Arctic Refuge will turn the corner in the broader national debate over whether or not energy, timber, mining and other industries should be allowed into pristine wild areas across the country. Along with the Arctic, oil interests are now targeting America's protected coastal waters. Next up: Greater Yellowstone? Our Western canyonlands?

The drive to drill in the Arctic Refuge is about oil company profits and lifting barriers to future exploration in protected lands, pure and simple. It has nothing to do with energy independence. Opening the Arctic Refuge to energy development is about transferring our public estate into corporate hands so that it can be liquidated for a quick buck.

Arctic Refuge Oil Is a Distraction, Not a Solution

What would America gain by allowing heavy industry into the refuge? Very little. Oil from the refuge would hardly make a dent in our dependence on foreign imports -- leaving our economy and way of life just as exposed to wild swings in worldwide oil prices and supply as it is today. The truth is, we simply can't drill our way to energy independence.

It would take 10 years for any Arctic Refuge oil to reach the market, and even when production peaks -- in the distant year of 2027 -- the refuge would produce a paltry 3 percent of Americans' daily consumption. The U.S. government's own Energy Information Agency recently reported that drilling in the Arctic would save less than 4 cents per gallon in 20 years. Whatever oil the refuge might produce is simply irrelevant to the larger issue of meeting America's future energy needs.

Handing On to Future Generations a Wild, Pristine Arctic? Priceless.

Oil produced from the Arctic Refuge would come at an enormous, and irreversible, cost. The refuge is among the world's last true wildernesses, and it is one of the largest sanctuaries for Arctic animals. Traversed by a dozen rivers and framed by jagged peaks, this spectacular wilderness is a vital birthing ground for polar bears, grizzlies, Arctic wolves, caribou and the endangered shaggy musk ox, a mammoth-like survivor of the last Ice Age.

For a sense of what Big Oil's heavy machinery would do to the refuge, just look 60 miles west to Prudhoe Bay -- a gargantuan oil complex that has turned 1,000 square miles of fragile tundra into a sprawling industrial zone containing 1,500 miles of roads and pipelines, 1,400 producing wells and three jetports. The result is a landscape defaced by mountains of sewage sludge, scrap metal, garbage and more than 60 contaminated waste sites that contain -- and often leak -- acids, lead, pesticides, solvents and diesel fuel.

While proponents of drilling insist that the Arctic Refuge could be developed by disturbing as little as 2,000 acres within the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, an NRDC analysis reveals this to be pure myth. Why? Because U.S. Geological Survey studies have found that oil in the refuge isn't concentrated in a single, large reservoir. Rather, it's spread across the coastal plain in more than 30 small deposits, which would require vast networks of roads and pipelines that would fragment the habitat, disturbing and displacing wildlife. (See a mapped scenario in pdf.)

A Responsible Path to Energy Security

The solution to America's energy problems will be found in American ingenuity, not more oil. Only by reducing our reliance on oil -- foreign and domestic -- and investing in cleaner, renewable forms of power will our country achieve true energy security.

The good news is that we already have many of the tools we need to accomplish this. For example, Detroit has the technology right now to produce high-performance hybrid cars, trucks and SUVs. If America made the transition to these more efficient vehicles, far more oil would be saved than the Arctic Refuge is likely to produce. Doesn't that make far more sense than selling out our natural heritage and exploiting one of our true wilderness gems?

last revised 12/19/2011

Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter

See the latest issue >

Give the Gift That Will Make a Difference: Leader of the Pack

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.


Donate now >

Related Stories

Q&A: Documentary Filmmaker Ken Burns on National Parks
Ken Burn spoke to OnEarth about his motivation for his new documentary series on America's national parks.
In the Canadian Boreal Forest, a Conservation Ethic at Work
After fighting successfully for years to keep destructive logging, hydropower and mining projects out of their traditional territory, the people of Poplar River are now working to secure permanent protection for their boreal forest homeland.
Shop Smart, Save Forests
Share | |
Find NRDC on
YouTube